‘It just makes sense’: Harris County turns to renewable energy to power its buildings – Houston Chronicle

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

Renewable power, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, means energy drawn from sources that restore themselves quickly and don’t diminish. It can be purchased in various ways, with the electricity not necessarily used here but added to the state’s power grid.

Environmental advocates have called for the county to shift toward buying only renewable energy in its power contract, arguing in a letter a year ago that it would make communities more healthy and safe. They called for the county also to install solar panels and battery storage at its buildings.

To see Harris County make such changes would send a powerful message that the region is heading in a “different, exciting direction,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas.

Shift toward renewable energy

The city of Houston has claimed to use 100 percent renewable energy since July, powering places such as the airports and zoo. Some of the city’s energy comes through what’s known as a power purchase agreement, a common way to support new power sources by agreeing to buy what they produce long-term.

The city’s agreement is with a West Texas solar plant. Developing a similar deal locally could be part of the county’s plan, Metzger suggested.

An agreement with Reliant, an NRG Energy company, meets the rest of the city’s power needs in two ways: One is with renewable energy that NRG buys. A solar facility being built will supply power under the agreement.

The other is what’s known as renewable energy certificates, or RECs, another method for investing in renewable energy. The county has bought these in the past, staking the claim it too was 100 percent green.

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

Seeking the right mix

The city of Houston indeed is the largest green power user of any local government, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data. Harris County, if it bought only green energy, would rank seventh.

The county spends some $17 million a year to power everything from offices to the jail to park lights. It traditionally bought power through the Public Power Pool, an entity made up of around 100 political jurisdictions that negotiated together for lower electricity costs.

Harris County helped create the group, and Garcia sits on its board. But Garcia felt working with it no longer seemed like the obvious best way. Renewable energy had become less expensive. The effects of climate change, spurred by the fossil fuel industry, are becoming ever more apparent.

The group proposed a last-minute green option, which some county staff found lacked information. But it could be considered by Harris County and others in the future.

Commissioner Jack Cagle, one of two Republicans on the majority-Democrat court, said he expected the county to stick with the power pool. While looking at other options was always a good thing to him, he sees advantages to the group’s reduced, long-term, fixed rates.

Cagle believes a mix of energy sources is best. And, with employees of the oil and gas industry among his taxpaying constituents, he said a desire for renewable energy should not be the county’s sole driver: “The question is, what is the cost?”

Petrochemical companies also have facilities in Garcia’s precinct, but he believes the time has come for the county to transition the power it uses and creates.

“I welcome all energy,” he told his fellow commissioners in December. “But obviously we do have a view to the future and the future does include sustainable and renewable energy, and so we obviously should be looking at it, should be understanding it, and should be working to embrace it.”

Emily Foxhall covers the environment for the Houston Chronicle. Read her on HoustonChronicle.com. | emily.foxhall@chron.com | Twitter: emfoxhall

emily.foxhall@chron.com

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